Photo essay: Crossing the Divide through Three Watersheds, the Platte, the Arkansas, the Colorado, Elk are on the move one day in May — Greg Hobbs

South Park Dawn, Upper South Platte Watershed

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Moving up Monarch Pass in the Arkansas River Watershed

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Across the Divide into the Upper Gunnison watershed of the Colorado River

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Returning across the Divide at Monarch Pass in snowstorm down into the Collegiate Peaks Range of the Arkansas River Basin

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Full Moon reveals itself moment-by-moment along Colorado’s Front Range in the South Platte River Basin

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Greg Hobbs 5/17/2019
(Travelling from Denver to attend the Water Education Colorado board meeting at Western Colorado University, Gunnison)

Trinidad Water Festival: Students celebrate ‘Aqua la Vida’ — #ColoradoSprings Military News Group

Photo credit: Trinidad Water Festival Facebook page.

From the Colorado Springs Military Newsgroup (Michelle Blake):

For the seventh year, Fort Carson staff supported the annual Trinidad, Colorado, Water Festival May 16, 2019, an event where students from kindergarten through 12th grade learn from local professionals about water conservation and the importance of water.

Event organizers said they believe investing in youth, education and the environment is a strong strategy for protecting and improving the natural environment. This year, more than 1,250 students from 14 different Las Animas County schools came to the Trinidad State Junior College campus to visit 40-50 presentations celebrating the theme “Aqua la Vida.”

Fort Carson staff provided four presentations. Jack Haflett, Directorate of Public Works (DPW) Environmental Division environmental protection specialist, used a colorful “Terminology Potpourri” poster to introduce the students to key concepts in pollution, mitigation and compliance and then encouraged them to practice soaking up mini oil spills with absorbent pads and beads.

A glass cylinder filled with cooking oil, a sports drink, isopropanol alcohol and syrup were used to demonstrate how different materials do not mix, and also how the properties of different substances determine which cleanup technique is implemented.

Students participated in the “Survey Says!” game with Craig Dengel, DPW Environmental Division Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site (PCMS) archaeologist, with the goal of identifying the seven key things that people require to survive (air, water, food, shelter, sleep, technology and family). The game was used to illustrate the historical settlement patterns of humans, which often coincide with proximity to reliable sources of water, such as oceans, rivers and lakes, and how water provides food and transportation opportunities.

DPW Environmental Division PCMS wildlife biologists highlighted some of the unique physical and behavioral adaptations that animals have developed in order to survive in a climate where water is a limiting resource. Students were able to examine a live bull snake to understand how the snake’s scales reduce water loss, reflect light and provide camouflage.

The biologists discussed the different ways that PCMS simultaneously supports the military mission and the environment through their Water for Wildlife Program, which uses solar powered wells and guzzlers. The presence of these reliable sources of water reduces the stress on individual animals, and helps offset the pressures from various training activities.

Finally, the students gathered around Directorate of Emergency Services PCMS Firefighter Kevin Filkins, Station 35, to learn how the Fire Department responds to wildland fires and implements prescribed burns to support a healthy, natural ecosystem. Filkins described the equipment that firefighters use on wildland fires, including water, personal protective gear and various hand tools.

CU Boulder’s Mountain Research Station: From base at 9,500 feet, scientists examine climate to top of tundra #ActOnClimate

Professor Frances Ramaley with picnic group. Photo credit: CU Boulder Mountain Research Group

Here’s a report from The Boulder Daily Camera (Charlie Brennan) via The Loveland Reporter-Herald. Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s and excerpt:

The University of Colorado Boulder’s Mountain Research Station, within the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest and situated just a few miles west off of Colo. 72, is the jumping-off point for some of the most important ongoing research into the nuanced and changing dynamics of alpine ecology going on anywhere in North America.

Increasingly, the focus of that work relates directly to the signals and effects of climate change — a problem not even being considered by scientists when University of Colorado biology professor Francis Ramaley launched the Tolland Summer Biology Camp in the vicinity in 1909.

That camp, where primary tools included shotguns, shovels and butterfly nets, closed in 1919, and after the university bought the land to the north, it built what was known as the University Camp.

It was a successor to Ramaley, biology professor John W. Marr, who in 1946 would initiate the Mountain Ecology Project, the Mountain Climate Program, and the East Slope Ecology Project, and who was key to establishing the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Ecology, which would merge in 1952 with the University Camp as the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

The frontier of research into the effects of a changing climate, where animals and plants are living at the extreme limits of environmental tolerance at up to 12,000 feet, has continued to be expanded there — with ground-penetrating radar and drones now displacing shotguns and shovels — for well over half a century.

“The idea that humans could have such a pervasive impact on not just regional environment but the global environment, I don’t think was really understandable back then,” Bill Bowman, research station director for the past 29 years, said of its earliest days.

Now, said Bowman, a professor in the CU Boulder Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, “It is the very theme of research that goes on there, the impacts of humans on the environment.”

An alphabet soup of laboratories and agencies participate directly in research based out of the research station. They include not just INSTAAR, the National Ecological Observatory Network, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Critical Zone Observatory, but also researchers who don’t have weighty acronyms anchored to their curriculum vitae.

“We’ve got everything from individual grad students doing their masters theses, up to the groups that have been working up there for almost 40 years now,” Bowman said. “And so really, anybody can do research up there. We don’t make a distinction about whether they are rich and famous, or just starting in science. We really take pride in that a lot of researchers get their first experience in doing research up there.”

[…]

The Mountain Research Station base facilities, including the John W. Marr Alpine Laboratory, a family lodge with capacity for up to 32 visitors, and the Kiowa Laboratory and Classroom, with meeting space to accommodate 24, are perched at a mere 9,500 feet.

With individual data collection points spread across a challenging terrain topping out with the highest at 12,267 feet, and snow that can pile up in some spots as deep as 15 to 20 feet, simply navigating this living laboratory can be an imposing challenge.

But many of those who work there consider the opportunity to do so a gift. An example would be Duane Kitzis, a senior research associate for CU Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, who works for the Global Monitoring Division of the Earth System Research Laboratory at NOAA. He has been going up Niwot Ridge since 1987, collecting air samples that are used to provide calibration material for the measurement of greenhouse gases at laboratories around the world. He now makes more than 400 standard air measurements per year up there…

Katharine Suding is the lead investigator for one of the major research programs being conducted in the breathtaking landscape above the research station. Known as the Niwot Ridge Long Term Ecological Research program, it’s an interdisciplinary research initiative aimed at building a predictive understanding of ecological processes in high-elevation mountain ecosystems, and contributing to broad advances in ecology.

“We need long-term studying and monitoring of these complex systems to start being able to understand how they work and predict how they’re going to work in the future,” Suding said of the project, supported by funding from the National Science Foundation.

The Niwot Ridge research program has climate records (both temperature and precipitation) dating to 1952 at four places along an elevation gradient topping out at its “D1” site; that’s the one perched at 12,267 feet.

Suding’s project has the regular involvement of about 15 faculty, eight staff members, 25 graduate students and 10 undergraduates at CU Boulder. A few are stationed full time at the research station, and one or two rarely stray from the work under microscopes examining samples at laboratories down in Boulder. Most split their time between the city and the alpine world.

On a recent trip — by snowcat, across the snow that still blanketed the landscape well into May — through her program’s 4-square-mile research area, Suding, a professor in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at CU and fellow at INSTAAR, observed the interplay of snowpack, snowmelt, changes in temperature and air quality impact the fragile ecosystem in myriad ways.

“We know that in the forests, with a longer summer, the forests don’t do as well, because they get really stressed out in July and August, when it’s really hot and they don’t have the moisture,” she said. “We thought this tree line would go up, if the summer was longer and hotter. But it is not going up, because the young trees can’t start growing up here because it’s too dry.”

[…]

Suding’s research territory borders on the westernmost reaches of the Boulder Watershed, where CU Boulder scientists also collect data, only working under permission from city officials. At the top of the watershed, at 12,513 feet, sits Arikaree Glacier, which Suding’s predecessor Mark Williams predicted could vanish completely in 20 to 25 years. That sobering forecast hasn’t changed.

Predicting our climate future, according to Suding, depends on understanding how our ecology has evolved, particularly in response to the dramatic changes wreaked by the Industrial Revolution.

Rifle: Garfield County State of the Rivers Meeting, June 5, 2019

An irrigation ditch south of Silt, and the Colorado River, moves water toward a field. The state of irrigated agriculture in Garfield County is expected to get a closer look as part of an integrated water management plan being prepared by the Middle Colorado Watershed Council. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

Click here for all the inside skinny:

The 2019 Garfield County State of the River meeting is coming up next week, Wednesday, June 5th, at the Rifle Branch Library.

Please join us for this evening of presentations, discussions, and updates on the Western Slope’s most important natural resource: The Colorado River.

Presentations at this year’s event will include information and updates about local planning efforts, current and forecasted conditions for the summer months, and an overview of “big river” issues including recent Drought Contingency Plans (DCP’s) for the Upper and Lower Basin states.

Who: Garfield County Water Users (That’s all of us!)
When: June 5. Free food and drink at 5:30pm – Program begins at 6:00pm.
Where: Rifle Branch Library, 207 East Avenue, Rifle, CO

We hope you’ll attend to hear ongoing efforts at the local, regional and national levels to sustain and enhance critical water resources in the Colorado River Basin.

Field day at the Central Great Plains Research Station east of Akron, CO, June 19, 2019

From Joel Schneekloth via Twitter:

Field day at the Central Great Plains Research Station east of Akron, CO on June 19, 2019. Registration starts at 8:30 a.m. Address is 40335 CR GG, Akron, CO. Free lunch served.

Is the #SouthPlatteRiver too salty? New study to examine water quality amid concerns — @WaterEdCo @ColoradoCorn

Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District Hite plant outfall via South Platte Coalition for Urban River Evaluation

From Water Education Colorado (Shay Castle):

The fields of Sterling, Colo., in May are a dependable trio of colors: yellow with the dried remnants of last year’s harvest; the deep brown of freshly tilled earth; and green from new growth. Another hue mars this palette in places, an unwelcome one: white. The color of salt. To crops, it’s the color of death.

There aren’t many patches of dead land. But there are enough to worry farmers and water officials that the same fate that has felled civilizations could befall cities along the South Platte River: that the land will become too salty to support plant life.

“Salinity is always a concern in agriculture,” said Grady O’Brien, a Fort Collins-based hydrologist who has been tapped to lead a study of salinity along the South Platte this year. Colorado Corn, a group representing farmers in the state, is sponsoring the study, with a $39,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

It’s too soon to tell if salinity is a problem on the South Platte. Preliminary sampling by Colorado Corn in September showed worrying signs. Measures were taken at a dozen points along the river from above Denver to the Colorado state line. As the water flowed downstream, its purity dipped noticeably.

Salt is actually a catch-all term for total dissolved solids, or TDS. TDS can include a number of things other than what the general population knows as salt, sodium chloride. In the world of water, “salt” can be magnesium chloride, uranium, selenium — any minerals, salts, metals, and ions that have dissolved in the water.

In samples taken last year near Waterton Canyon, TDS was measured at 162 parts per trillion. Samples taken near Julesberg, much farther down the river on the Eastern Plains, came in at 1,310 parts per trillion, according to data provided by O’Brien.

“Once the testing got down around Sterling, it was pretty darn toxic in terms of salt,” said Mark Sponsler, chief executive officer of Colorado Corn. “Those numbers gave us enough of a concern to want to do a more in-depth look.”

Map via Water Education Colorado.

The full study will review historical datasets from a handful of organizations, including several water districts, the Colorado Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Decades of information should reveal if the South Platte has gotten saltier over time, identify seasonal variations, and uncover potential sources of increased salt.

Salinization is not a new problem; it is as old as civilization itself. What is today Iraq, sometimes called the Cradle of Civilization, was once known as the Fertile Crescent. Centuries of irrigation concentrated salts in the soil to such a degree that nothing would grow.

A study released in early 2018 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 37 percent of drainage basins in the United States have been altered by salinity over the past century.

“The greatest threat to irrigated agriculture in the world is salinization,” said Timothy Gates, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Colorado State University. Gates has worked on the Arkansas River, Colorado’s saltiest, for years.

All water, even rainwater, contains salt. When applied to crops (or urban lawns and gardens), plants absorb the water and leave the salts behind, which accumulate over time. In the modern world, agricultural runoff contributes to salinity, as does the increasing use of de-icing compounds on roads.

But it may be in part state water policies that are driving salinization on the South Platte. As drought-prone Colorado focuses on conservation, water is reused more and more. Each use adds a certain amount of salt to the water it pulls from upstream. And while water quality regulations exist for things like uranium, selenium and nitrogen, there are no guidelines for TDS and their effects on agriculture, O’Brien and Gates said.

When Denver gets its water from mountain snowpacks, it is almost as pure as it can be, O’Brien said, at about 100-200 parts per million of TDS. By the time the city pumps treated wastewater back into the South Platte, it’s closer to 500-600 ppm. (Denver Water and the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District declined to confirm TDS levels.)

Downstream of Denver, on its way to Nebraska, the South Platte winds its way past hundreds of miles of roads, farm fields, stockyards, and oil and gas wells. It passes near or through the towns of Brighton, Fort Lupton, Greeley, Fort Morgan, and Brush before it reaches the corn, bean and alfalfa fields of Sterling.

Each city, each wastewater treatment plant, each roadway “keeps adding to that salt load,” O’Brien said. “Salinity is increasing all the way through the basin.”

But Jim McQuarrie, director of strategy and innovation at Metro Wastewater, said wastewater treatment plants can and do improve the quality of the water they treat. For instance, the water Metro puts back into the South Platte has less magnesium and chloride than the water it takes in. “We actually net improve [those] salts.”

McQuarrie said discussions are ongoing about how to improve on all fronts when it comes to salinity: “Wherever there are opportunities for us to avoid unnecessary addition of TDS, we are working on that now.”

By some measures water coming from upstream has improved over the years, said Jim Yahn, manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District. In his region, nitrates from fertilizers used to cause algae and moss growth in rivers and reservoirs, but the problem has dissipated in recent years.

“With increased regulation on municipal effluent,” said Yahn, referencing the outflow that comes from upstream wastewater treatment plants, “the water quality is better in a lot of ways.”

And despite the few crusty patches of field surrounding Sterling, he said farmers aren’t yet worried, though they are looking forward to what the data has to say.

The study is scheduled to be completed in late October.

Fresh Water News is an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.

150 years after John Wesley Powell ventured down the #ColoradoRiver, how should we assess his legacy in the west? — @WaterEdFdn #COriver #aridification #Powell150 @MajorJWPowell

Western Water Q&A: University of Colorado’s Charles Wilkinson on Powell, water and the American west

From Gary Pitzer writing for the Water Education Foundation (Click through for the photo gallery.)

Explorer John Wesley Powell and Paiute Chief Tau-Gu looking over the Virgin River in 1873. Photo credit: NPS

Powell scrawled those words in his journal as he and his expedition paddled their way into the deep walls of the Grand Canyon on a stretch of the Colorado River in August 1869. Three months earlier, the 10-man group had set out on their exploration of the iconic Southwest river by hauling their wooden boats into a major tributary of the Colorado, the Green River in Wyoming, for their trip into the “great unknown,” as Powell described it.

Powell’s trip down the Colorado River and his subsequent account are a staple of the history of the American West and a key moment in the understanding of the region’s geology and hydrology. One hundred and fifty years after Powell and his party began their trip on May 24, 1869, the magnitude of his accomplishment remains fascinating. After enduring a harrowing ride through pounding rapids while surviving on near-starvation rations, six exhausted men emerged from the 930-mile journey on Aug. 30, 1869. (One man quit after a month, while three others departed on Aug. 28, never to be seen again.) Powell would return in 1871 for a second trip.

University of Colorado Professor Emeritus Charles Wilkinson has written about Powell and his legacy, including the foreword to an upcoming book on Powell by a collection of contributors called “Vision & Place: John Wesley Powell & Reimagining the Colorado River Basin.” Wilkinson described the Western icon and one-armed Civil War veteran as a complex character, a larger-than-life person and an early visionary of wise water use in an arid West. Powell, the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, “could be viewed as an early climate scientist,” according to USGS’ official biography, because of his belief that lands west of the 100th meridian were not generally suitable for agricultural development but for a small percentage. He advocated for organizing settlements around water and watersheds, which would encourage collaboration and local control and force water users to conserve.

“I tell you gentlemen you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not enough water to supply the land,” Powell told an audience of farmers and developers in October 1893, a year before he resigned from the USGS.

Wilkinson spoke recently with Western Water about Powell and his legacy and how Powell might view the Colorado River today.

WW: How did you first become acquainted with Powell’s story?

CHARLES WILKINSON: A lot of people of my vintage give the same answer, which is Wallace Stegner’s book. (“Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West.”) I proceeded to read about half of Stegner’s other works in a month. Finally, I wrote him a letter. He said come down and we’ll talk, and we became close friends. [Former Secretary of the Interior] Bruce Babbitt said Stegner’s book was the “rock that came through the window” for him, and I think Powell is somebody you can look at that way. He opened so much for us. He was the Lewis and Clark of the Southwest. The country didn’t know about the region and Powell picked up so much information about it.

WW: What’s the context in which we view Powell and his journey today?

Route of Powell’s
expedition with key locations noted via OARS Outfitters. Used with permission

WILKINSON: It’s the specifics of going down the canyon — the sense of daring, bravery, ambition and looking out into the future. Along the way, he’s meeting with Indian tribes, Hispanic communities, Mormon communities and so you are starting to get a sense of land-based people and diverse societies. Powell believed in cooperation in water policy and public land policy. On the public land side, he had ideas about homesteading. He favored it, but the problem in the mid-19th century was the big combines were the ones benefiting because they would find ways to buy up homestead land and make money out of it. Also, there was this notion that the U.S. wanted everyone to move west and there were a whole lot of people coming out saying, ‘there’s no rain out here through the summer’ and everything was brown instead of green. Powell favored a truth-in-lending approach toward homesteading so that potential homesteaders knew what they were in for.

WW: What did Powell contribute to our modern thinking about water in the West?

A stopover during Powell’s second expedition down the Colorado River. Note Powell’s chair at top center boat. Image: USGS

WILKINSON: David Getches [former dean of the University of Colorado Law School] wrote the best legal book about the Colorado River and he called for community governance, but he got that from Powell. The idea of the people of the watershed and the different large river tributaries being communities and being able to have their own values evidenced in land policy and water policy really dates to Powell. Would Powell be an environmentalist? Not exclusively in any way explicitly. He was kind of just before John Muir … and during his formative years … environmentalism in any modern sense hadn’t come about yet. He never would have argued for using every drop of the river, but he thought agriculture was the future of the West, the Jeffersonian ideal, and so he saw Western rivers and the Colorado River watershed as having a lot of diversions from it for agriculture.

WW: Does the attention paid to Powell’s story come at the expense of others?

John Wesley Powell

WILKINSON: When we talk about Powell, we talk about what he had to offer us. One was intellectual ambition. Powell came up with comprehensive plans for the settlement of the West that were beyond what anyone was thinking. He did think big. He thought big about going down the river in the first place. His policy proposals were easily the most important work done in the 19th century in terms of Western land. He was a man who refused to have any limitations to his intellect and there wasn’t any idea he didn’t want to take on. He wanted to take on the biggest and toughest ones he could find.

With Indians, it’s a big subject and as a starting point, I think you have to say Powell had a very unfortunate impact on Indian policy. He was the head of the Bureau of Ethnology and his ethnologies were very patronizing. He didn’t think of governance for tribes. Of course, today, tribes are known as sovereign. He has these immense proposals of different kinds for how to govern Western lands and paid a lot of attention to water rights generally, but he never proposed any right for tribes, so this is a black mark against him.

WW: How would he view the issues that exist on the Colorado River today?

WILKINSON: We had [with the Drought Contingency Plan] a partial approach toward reconciling Upper Basin and Lower Basin water interests and I think Powell would have liked that very much because it fits with his idea of local government and people of the watershed making decisions. He favored reclamation, and the Reclamation Act of 1902 was partly his work. But I can’t help but feel that the way it spun out of control with so much development on so many rivers, that he would have thought it was out of proportion. But who can say?

The best way to go about Powell is to recognize his general philosophical position and be inspired that somebody could do so much conceptualizing about what the West ought to be. It tells us that we should think big. His belief in science is something we should really respect. He was the person who started the use of public science in American natural resource management, and that’s an example of a person thinking big.

LEARN MORE about John Wesley Powell’s life and accomplishments here

Reach Gary Pitzer: gpitzer@watereducation.org, Twitter: @gary_wef
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